Sydney Writers’ Festival: My Day 1

The Sydney Writers’ Festival has been going for days now, but my festival started yesterday, on a bleak, wet, grey Thursday.

I began with a 10 o’clock launch of four chapbooks in Vagabond Press’s Rare Objects series. Chapbooks are books of poetry so small they don’t even rate an ISBN. But where some chapbooks have a cheap and cheerful feel, the Rare Objects are beautifully crafted, a hundred numbered and signed copies of each title. The books being launched were by the stellar line-up of David Malouf, Robert Adamson, Martin Harrison and Adam Aitken.

Luke Davies gave one of the best launch speeches I’ve heard. He paid tribute to Michael Brennan of Vagabond Press and to the four poets in warmly personal terms, as people and as creators. The mutual respect and affection among the five people on the dais was something wonderful: completely the opposite of the internecine strife for which poets are supposedly famous. Each of the four launchees read: Adam Aitken from November Already, Robert Adamson from Empty your Eyes, Martin Harrison from Living Things)and David Malouf from Sky News (which my deafness heard Luke Davies announce, improbably, as Sky Nudist, but that would be a different chapbook). We the audience were very restrained, applauding politely after each reader – my guess is that we were too busy processing the complex pleasures we were being given to be too demonstrative. It really was a brilliant reading: a stunning prose poem from Adamson, crisp imagery from Malouf, Aitken taking the New York School to a tiny French village (not really, but that’s a mangled form of his own joke), Harrison in fine rhapsodic form. I loved Martin Harrison’s account of the genesis of his ‘Wallabies’: witnessing two young Australians in full xenophobic flight in a Parisian Internet cafe (and he described them to us with great relish), he took notes intending to write a satirical poem, but realised when he sat to write that what he really wanted to do was to celebrate the part is Australia they came from.

I couldn’t have asked for a better start. I bought all four of the Rare Objects, found a spot out of the rain and sat and read, did email things on my iPad, and chatted. (One of the striking things about the SWF is how easy it is to strike up a conversation with complete strangers.) Then it was time for the 1 o’clock session:Harbour City Poets: Some People You May Know, my first event in the Bangarra Mezzanine, which I think of as the poets’ space at the Festival. Again it was a pleasure to be read to, this time by a quintet of poets – Margaret Bradstock, John Carey, David Musgrave, Louise Wakeling and Les Wicks. The poems were about people, real, and imagined. Margaret Bradstock’s pieces about colonial characters made me want more. And there was some witty and elegant light satire. It may be because someone had told me just before the session about the man being hacked to death in London, but I found myself thinking that light satire, especially when performed giving broad Austealian accents to its objects, is a dangerous mode in which the satirist can all too easily come off as smug, class-bound, narrow-minded, bien-pensant and otherwise unappealing.

I rushed home (bus–train–bus), walked and fed the dog and was back, just a few minutes late for Robert Green: On Creativity at 4 oclock. This session wasn’t on my schedule, but a friend had a ticket she couldn’t use, and the Festival program promised ‘exercises to help rid [me] of blocks and unleash thinking that is more fluid and creative’. Given that I’m feeling out of my depth with a writing project just now, it was a case of what the hell archie, and I’d taken the tickets off her hands. It was turned out to be pretty much a motivational talk. The ‘exercises’ were three broadbrush strategies: embrace the blank page; think like an outsider; subvert your patterns of thinking. I enjoyed the talk, not least for the wealth of anecdote and Robert Green’s manifest passion for his message that every human brain is capable of brilliance, that mastery is possible. I especially liked the first question and response at the end. In summary, a white-bearded man suggested that next time a journalist asks him if he can seriously believe the stuff he says, he should try thinking like a mushroom; this was evidently meant as a witticism, but Green was completely nonplussed; after a bit of back and forth in which the point of excuse tin remained obscure, he agreed that he would give it a try.

More bus, more train, dinner at a pub in Chippendale then to the Carriageworks for Stories Then & Now. I’m a big fan of William Yang’s slide-show story telling, especially his exploration of his Chinese and north Queensland heritages over the years. For this show, along with Annette Shum Wah, he has mentored six mainly younger Asian-heritage people to tell the stories of their families (‘then’) and their personal stories (‘now’). Each story-teller had two turns alone on stage with a microphone in front of hem and two screens showing a series of photographs behind them. Ien Ang, Jenevieve Chang, Michael C. S. Park, Sheila Pham, Paul van Reyk and Willa Zheng were each completely engaging, and the combined effect of heir six presentations was extraordinarily rich. The Cultural Revolution, the Korean War, the American War in Vietnam, Indonesian independence, the White Australia Policy; a hilariously failed attempt at an arranged marriage, a weirdly romantic tale of serial fatherhood by sperm donation, a successful Internet match, intergenerational tension and conflict fled, faced and reconciled. We came out into the night exhilarated.

8 responses to “Sydney Writers’ Festival: My Day 1

  1. Yesterday I was at the session led by Caroline BAUM with two pilgrims – poet/playwright Ailsa PIPER (and 1200 km ‘el camino’ from Granada to Santiago de Compostela) and Cheryl STRAYED (who walked a wilderness trail of some 1700 kms finishing up through California, Oregon and into Washington state)! Intelligent and sensitive and searching questions from the moderator – answered equally thus! This morning it was William DALRYMPLE speaking on why he writes history – with some specific references to his latest book “Return of the King” about the British invasion/wars of Afghanistan in the era 1839-1942 – and a strange conjunction as counter-thinker and session companion – an Indian writer/thinker well-versed in world history yet in some senses at the same time denying the discourse of history (which he writes as novels) even that there are no lessons to be learnt from it. It distracted I felt from the pure passion and delight shining from William D and his spotlight bringing incredible tales from those times to illuminate our contemporary world! I sat alongside a woman who has written a history of Wellington’s men who post-Waterloo took up opportunities in New South Wales – many of our early governors and “explorers”/”names”! Palgrave Macmillan 2011: “Wellington’s Men in Australia” (Peninsula War Veterans….) Christine WRIGHT. An Irish-born ancestor of mine serving under Wellington died in a slight skirmish at Fuentes de Oñoro on May 5th in 1811.


  2. 1839-1842 – the Afghanistan reference – or maybe 1832-2013 might be more appropriate?!!!


  3. Sorry, Jonathan. Not there at Writers Festival beyond Friday! Listening though by Radio National to various Writers Festival broadcasts! It was Prakaj MISHRA who was the counter to William DALRYMPLE, by the way. I have downloaded both their latest books – will probably get to read them in the coming week or so. Will be seeing a Tamworth childhood friend in Fernbank St, M’ville on Monday evening! To-night with friends in Glebe to Campsie Korean BBQ restaurant then a drive around the bright lights show of Sydney – Darling Harbour/Harbour Bridge/Circular Quay/Opera House! Pure delight my two weeks now in Sydney!


  4. I listened to some Radio National broadcasts last week – loved Michael Cathcart with Lauren Beukes … what a great session that was and what an interesting writer. Had never heard of her before.

    I should try to go to more poetry readings … have of course been to a few … but your Chapbook session sounds wonderful.


  5. Pingback: Monday musings on Australian literature: Notes on the Sydney Writers’ Festival from a non-attendee | Whispering Gums

  6. Thanks Jim and whispering for pointing me to the RN broadcasts. I have now subscribed to the podcast. I stopped subscribing when they axed the Book Show, but will give this Books and Arts show a go


  7. I was disappointed too at the axing but I’m quite enjoying the new one though I don’t listen quite as much as I used to.


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